Against a backdrop of government funding cuts, a diverse group of community members is rallying to improve the Asheville elementary school with the highest percentage of impoverished students.
Roughly 80 percent of Hall Fletcher Elementary kids receive free or reduced-price lunches, and nearly 20 percent are classified as "exceptional students," meaning they have various physical and mental disabilities. Over time, the once-cutting edge West Asheville institution had come to be considered “a school of last resort," says , executive director of the Asheville Design Center.
Thanks to an unprecedented community collaboration, however, that reputation has begun to change. Colorful murals depicting trees and the sun now adorn the façade of the otherwise drab brick structure.
And now, a more ambitious effort aims to turn an unimposing playground into an innovative outdoor learning center that will bring the magnet school's academic focus — math, science and technology — to life.
"Exterior transformation reflects interior transformation," proclaims Principal Gordon Grant, who came on board two-and-a-half years ago. "You want the children in this school to know they're valued. And nothing can state value better than making the school beautiful."
The push to renovate the play area began in 2006. "We realized that the playground … was sort of deficient for the needs of the school, and we started working to find a solution," reports neighborhood resident Joyce Brown, who had a child at Hall Fletcher back then. Brown is operations manager at Equinox Environmental, the consulting and design firm that took the lead in developing a plan.
But the effort largely stalled when the economy crashed, until Grant became principal and the Asheville Design Center got involved. The nonprofit has been working with the Asheville City Schools Foundation, landscape architect Joel Osgood, the Yale Club of WNC and others to update the design and raise money.
After meeting with students, teachers, neighbors and other stakeholders, "We realized they wanted more than a playground,” Joyell explains. “They wanted a way to bring those classroom lessons into the outdoors. … Now we've got a final design that everyone's agreed upon that I think will really work for the school."
The design envisions an array of creative features, including a weather station, a native-plant garden, a handicapped-accessible tree house, and a merry-go-round that pumps water from an artesian well onto a sand table where kids can make castles.
Two outdoor classrooms would feature the vaulted tile domes popularized by noted architect Rafael Guastavino, who designed (and is buried in) the Basilica of Saint Lawrence in downtown Asheville. Students would make tiles and help build the structures, learning engineering lessons along the way; acclaimed MIT professor and author John Ochsendorf, a Guastavino expert, has agreed to oversee that aspect of the project.
"Science isn't just about widgets and technology: It's about a whole way of looking at the world through the scientific method," notes Grant. "Experiential learning is also experimental learning, and a playground should lend itself to that, with a lot of free and open creative play spaces."
An open secret
Even with mostly donated labor, remaking the half-acre site is projected to cost about $330,000. "It's a really expensive endeavor," notes Brown, adding, "I'm hopeful that we're going to make some progress."
Grading is slated to begin any day now, thanks to a $15,000 boost from the Asheville City Schools and pro bono work by Jade Mountain Builders. But most of the money needed to complete the overall project must still be raised.
Joyell, though, says, "Once you see the bulldozers out there moving the soil around, the fundraising efforts will really kick in, and we're going to see a lot of those different elements get funded very quickly. That's really how this thing is going to get pulled off — the community rallying around it."
Grant agrees, noting that the new facility will also serve as a public park when school's not in session. "It's so much more than about the school," he explains. "We want Hall Fletcher to absolutely be a community place, literally a central park in West Asheville. When that happens, you the get the fusion of education and community-building, which really makes the school special."
One recently recruited community partner is the Nichols-West Asheville Masonic Lodge, which has organized an Oct. 26 benefit event (see sidebar, “Fun-raising”).
“Supporting a project in our own neighborhood got us excited, particularly when we learned we could help support the construction of the Guastavino dome, which is directly in line with the sacred-geometry principles of Freemasonry,” lodge Master Smith McAulay says. He hopes to raise the roughly $2,500 needed to fund the smaller of the two outdoor classrooms.
The Design Center is already getting inquiries from Claxton and Ira B. Jones elementaries about collaborating on similar outdoor learning projects. "I want to create something out here that would have other schools lining up at our door saying, ‘We're next,’ and actually, that's already happened," Joyell reports. "Most of my work is really inspiring; I love the stuff we do. But this project kind of takes the cake."
Grant, meanwhile, says the murals and the buzz surrounding the outdoor project have already made Hall Fletcher a more attractive place for parents to send their kids.
"The murals have helped show the public that this is a place where people spend money on creating good things," he maintains, noting that after having been stagnant for years, enrollment jumped 20 percent this year, to 355 students. "I don't think that's coincidental.”
Hall Fletcher “has been a well-kept secret for a long time,” he continues. “Having a park that's really an attractive place will really make it an open secret — and one I want to share with all of Asheville."
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.